The gospel shows Jesus going out and seeing a great multitude, and his compassion for them, and teaching them about peace and love. That compassion was extended to his disciples when called to come away for rest and learn about peace and love. His compassion and mercy moved him to be close to people. We see Jesus leave a boat and look out to see people like sheep without a shepherd. He left the ‘sanctuary’ of the boat and his followers could stay in the ‘safety’ of the boat and make their home among strangers. In our time, another man (Pope Francis) gets off of a plane and looks out at a people crying out for recognition and tells them God hears their cry, and like a shepherd sent, joins his voice to call for the sacred rights of land, lodging and labour. ‘May the cry of the excluded be heard …… throughout the world.’
Reflecting on false leaders, a recent report states how a very small number of people can take credit for most of the fear-inducing disinformation spread about COVID-19 vaccinations. This has been repeated in Indigenous communities scaring people from have vaccinations in Aboriginal communities. In Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea) which I am re-reading, the writer, Mark Kurlansky, shows how fear-inducing misinformation has been spread throughout history by self-serving politicians to take us to war. Misleading lies have told about Muslims, asylum seekers, LGBTI+ people, and First Nation peoples. Jeremiah condemned the leaders ‘who mislead and scatter’ people and who abuse their power for selfish ends. He also gave hope that God would raise up one who would rule wisely and with justice and peace (Jer. 23: 5).
The theme for 2021 NAIDOC Week (July 4-11) was ‘Heal Country’. Healing is needed between peoples, people and the environment, and within the church. Pope Francis has asserted that “Unless we recover the shared passion to create a community of belonging and solidarity worthy of our time, our energy and our resources, the global illusion that misled us will collapse and leave many in the grip of anguish and emptiness. Nor should we naively refuse to recognize that ‘obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction’. The notion of ‘every (man) for himself’ will rapidly degenerate into a free-for-all that would prove worse than any pandemic.” (Fratelli Tutti, 36).
The invitation to come away and rest is for refreshment and learning, for dialogue and listening so that we can spread the goodness and kindness we have learned. It was not for permanent residence. It is not to avoid people or everyday realities but to come to a new consciousness where everything begins with. The Gospel is ‘good news’ but not necessarily good to hear. The truth can hurt. It can speak to heart and hit a spot. Gloria Steinem says, ‘The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.’ It influences how we look at the world and how we see the needs of people and then respond. Jesus’ compassion suggests that our commitment to the poor is incomplete we are not deeply rooted among the marginalised. In Jesus’ time, the power of state hinged on a hierarchal power structure whereas his compassion is expressed horizontally.
Earlier in Mark, Herod feasted in his palace with the elite that ended in death for John the Baptist. Jesus was in a deserted place amongst people to bring them life. Whilst Herod was motivated by political calculation, Jesus embodied compassion. We have two stories – one of injustice and murder and one of healing and compassion. John the Baptist’s gruesome death is a constant reminder that telling the truth to a loveless and hostile leadership has consequences as seen recently in the deaths of Fr Stan Swamy in India and a former MSC confrere Rustico (‘Rusty’) Tan in the Philippines. These deaths do not quieten the call for justice. As with Jesus, to the chagrin of those in power, they spoke truth to the powerful, they operated outside the centres of power, proclaimed a vision of the world alien to the establishment, and taught people to see the world how it is and can be.
Looking out at to the people of Latin America, the Philippines, and elsewhere, Pope Francis posed important questions: ‘Do we realise that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, so many families without a home, so many labourers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected? Do we realise that something is wrong where so many senseless wars are being fought and acts of fratricidal violence are taking place on our very doorstep? Do we realise something is wrong when the soil, water, air and living creatures of our world are under constant threat?’ In response to many forms of exclusion and injustice, Francis says ‘…there is an invisible thread joining every one of those forms of exclusion: can we recognize it?....Do we realize that that system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?’ If this is the case, then he insisted, ‘we want change, real change, structural change’ because it is intolerable to all those affected as well as our sister, Mother Earth. He added that ‘The globalisation of hope, a hope which springs up from peoples and takes root among the poor, must replace the globalisation of exclusion and indifference!’ Francis knows that ‘….the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organise’. Jesus has come amongst a community in pain, wounded, and hurting, in need of healing and reconciliation. They experienced a indifference from their leaders and suggests that they can, together, bring about change and establish God’s reign. Institutions and synagogue did not offer peace or healing. As we heard, Jeremiah challenges those who push people away but also offers his listeners hope: God will step in and reverse the downward spiral. God will step into their lives and take care of the people, and gather the scattered and lost. There will be a new form of encounter. This poor leadership is nothing new. We have seen it in the churches and our country. Among business people, military leaders, politicians, bishops, ayatollahs and muftis, and strategists, but few strive to bring people together, offer hope through their solidarity, strive to be peacemakers and remind people of their interconnectedness.
Jesus moved freely among people of all classes and genders: touched the sick, talked with sinners, empathised with people rendered voiceless. These people were oppressed and victimised; discounted and dominated by the Roman occupiers, and considered unclean by the religious elite. We tend to make separations in our daily life. We point to 'those people', 'their kind', terrorists, those good for nothings, those ‘bludgers’. We point out the strangers among us: from another country, different accents, different shades of skin, different customs, religion and food, different ways of doing things and different ways of being family. Whoever 'they' are, they are different, they are strangers to us – and we do not like them because they threaten our status, our way of thinking and our way of life. It need not be a world of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Ephesians turns everything on its head by saying we all have the same access to God regardless of who are or where we are from. There is a new creation; there is one humanity.
We can build tangible and intangible ones walls, Jesus’ followers must bring down those walls rather than build them by refusing to endorse the vilification of people, violence, racism, sexism or homophobia. In Australia we have many psychological and social barriers - domination, paternalism, suspicion, hostility and blame directed towards the first peoples of this land and the most recent to arrive. These barriers are as high and deep and wide as any other physical wall.
Jesus saw the large crowd of people, ‘like sheep without a shepherd,’ but not as resource poor or religious or not but as sisters and brothers. It was with these eyes that Pope Francis seems to address people that he meets. The people Jesus looked upon were people who could not find what they needed in the synagogue. Pope Francis has often spoken of the need for a ‘culture of encounter’. He has named some of the enduring hungers:
We cannot ignore the fact that in cities human trafficking … narcotics … abuse … of minors … abandonment of the elderly … various forms of corruption … take place. …What could be significant places of encounter and solidarity often become places of isolation and mutual distrust. Houses and neighbourhoods … isolate and protect [rather] than … connect and integrate. The proclamation of the Gospel will be a basis for restoring the dignity of human life in these contexts, for Jesus desires to pour out an abundance of life upon our cities. (Joy of the Gospel #75)
We are called to be shepherds. We become disciples by doing the work of being a disciple of Jesus: peace-making, love, healing and justice. We are called to work to care for the least and ensure that the mighty do not get to bully their way to achieving their goals. Paul’s vision was of diverse, inclusive community where all people are cared for. Often God’s name can be used to justify lives and attitudes at odds with this vision: men bullying women and children in God’s name; pastors manipulating and controlling their congregations in God’s name; parents bullying and controlling their children in God’s name; Christians rejecting and abusing people of other faiths or no faith, or people of different theological perspectives or sexual orientations, or people of different in race, language, or gender in God’s name. Rather than celebrate the house of God where all can find a home, we draw dividing lines and become door-keepers by choosing legalism, pointing fingers, and self-righteousness rather than embracing the diversity of the community of faith that cares and protects the least and the most vulnerable among us.
As the disciples saw how Jesus identified with the needs that appeared before him, we too have to feel the real needs of the people and respond to them. Pope Francis puts it like this when he says that an evangelizing community gets involved in people’s daily lives, it bridges difference and is even willing to abase itself if necessary. (Joy of the Gospel #24)
How will we live and respond? Will it be ego-driven, walking over dead bodies to achieve what we want and interested in having power over others, or will it be self-denying, loving everyone and sharing power. It is only with the latter that we will allow the pain of the world to move us in the core of our being.